World Connections

Yes, yes, I know – and you do too if you been following me on Twitter or Instagram – I got back from Japan a whole week ago so where be all the Japan posts?!?  All in good time, friends.  I’m not even done writing about Korea from a whole year ago.  Spoiler alert:  I only slightly fail at writing travelogues.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was at a job interview for a position that is heavily focused on writing and communication (EDIT:  I GOT THE JOB).  One question I got was “Why writing?” – aside from the fact that I must be a fairly good writer, being an ex-PhD student and all (not universally true, by the way), why was I choosing to make writing the focal point of my career path now?

I hadn’t thought about that question at all, really.  The duh answer is that I’ve always loved writing and language.  And writing about language.  Naturally, I brought up this blog.  This blog is the perfect marriage of my two greatest passions and being able to do both in one space gives me boundless satisfaction and joy.  I’ve said it over and over again: I don’t think I would’ve ever entertained the idea of blogging had it not been for the other language bloggers I had silently followed before starting my own.

Blogging hasn’t just brought me personal joy, it’s brought me connections to people all over the world.

Real talk:  By Internet stats, I’m not a popular blogger by any means.  My daily page views are practically negligible and I only have a few hundred followers.  That being said, I’m incredibly lucky.  I have come to know many of my followers through my blog and social media and through language learning itself.  The majority of us may not have met in person, but these are still true, meaningful connections.  Last year, I met my wifey Jeannie for the first time in Seoul after years and years of getting to know her online.  This year, I stopped in Nagoya to meet another online friend in person.


I first met Haruna through Theo’s Japanese-American friend, who had met her through a language-exchange site.  We Skyped a few times after that, talked for a bit on Facebook (she introduced me to Sakanaction hehe) and Line and when I mentioned that I was coming to Japan and would love to meet up with her, she agreed!  Haruna commuted something like 2 hours from her hometown to meet Theo and me at Nagoya station where she took us to eat donburi.

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, but it was incredibly touching to know that through my language learning endeavors, I had made a friend in Japan – and we were both really excited to see each other!  She may have plans to come to California next year so hopefully we see each other again.

It just feels really awesome that I have friends that I’ve made through language learning and blogging in all these different pockets of the world.  I feel kinda like a global citizen.

I love writing, but in all honesty, I never thought to make it a part of my career.  I’ve been “writing a novel” since seventh grade or so, and it’s always been on the side.  It never felt like I was doing enough.  Now I know exactly what is so satisfying about writing and why I want to make it the center of my career:  I love that my words can reach other people.  And that we can inspire each other as a result!  That’s pretty damn powerful.

명심 해야 할 속담

So I have a job and, aside from that, I have a million other hobbies.

Korean and Japanese are my more serious hobbies (I’ll be taking TOPIK for the first time this year!)  I’m pretty bad at sitting down and studying everyday but my everyday life is inundated with those languages.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But then there are my other hobbies – knitting, origami, blogging, writing fiction, reading, teaching myself how to code, designing websites – and when I get those rare pockets of time I have outside of the job, I’m literally scurrying from one hobby to another.  And, now that I’ve decided to take the 40th TOPIK exam, I feel guilty when I’m not spending my free time studying.

On the one hand, having a goal to work towards is great, especially since I’m this busy.  On the other hand, the more I throw myself into studying Korean, the less time I have to develop my other hobbies.  Maybe it’s the new year, but I just got back into writing fiction, reading again, and practicing Japanese conversation with an awesome language partner.

I tell myself that the timesink of preparing for TOPIK is short-lived.  Sure, I can get back to my random amalgam of hobbies after I’m done with the exam, but the fact of the matter is, well, it’s impossible to do a million things and be great at all of them.  Developing advanced skills, especially if you’re teaching yourself, takes a lot of practice, which takes a lot of time.  And time is limited.

I fear, as the old aphorism goes, that I’m turning into a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

Turns out there is a Korean 속담 that captures the sentiment of Johannes factotum quite well:

열두 가지 재주 가진 놈이 저녁거리가 없다.

Literally:  “A man with twelve talents has nothing to eat for dinner.”  어설픈 재주를 여러 가지 가진 사람이 한 가지 확실한 재주를 가진 사람보다 못한다.  That is, a person who knows many things superficially is less able than a person who knows one thing thoroughly.

Sigh.  But I want to know all the things!  Unfortunately, I don’t think I have the brain capacity to be a 만물박사[萬物博士] – that’s the Korean term for a Jack of all trades.  Considering the Hanja, literally, a “Professor of a Thousand Things.”

The thing is, having multiple skills or talents doesn’t mean you’ll be the master of none.  You can most definitely be the master of some.  The trick is prioritization.  That’s where I inherently had a problem with my thinking.  I wanted to be an expert on every single thing, so I couldn’t sit down and delve deeply into the few things really cared about, including passing TOPIK.

I know I can’t be the “master” of Korean and also 79879 other things I love to do.  But I can be the master of Korean and, perhaps, two or three other things.  Like blogging.  Or writing.  I have to take a long, hard look at the rest of my hobbies and decide what I don’t mind being mediocre at (a good example is knitting – I really only know how to knit a garter stitch and barely can manage purling) so I can shine at the things that really matter to me.  But I would never give up any of my hobbies, no matter how “bad” I am at them.

After all,

Jack of all trades, master of none,
Certainly better than a master of one.

Beware the dictionary

I’m having fun writing in Korean.  Whether it’s lang-8 entries, fan letters, random tweets, or me2day updates, I’m really enjoying the fact that I can construct a decent sentence without laboring over it for a long time.  In fact, I LOVE that Korean grammar allows me to write longer sentences that would sound like absolute nonsense if translated into English.  As it is, I tend to have long, adjective- and adverb-ridden, clause-filled sentences in English, but because of the glorious overuse of relative clauses in Korean, I can make my Korean sentences EVEN LONGER than my English sentences!  Haha.  I’m sure few native speakers actually write like that these days, but I like it.  In fact, I actually think that’s part of the reason some native speakers have told me that my writing sounds natural.  I might not have acquired a broad vocabulary yet but because I’ve somewhat figured out the cadence of Korean writing, I think I have a better “ear” for how a sentence “sounds” – and I think Korean sentences on average tend to be longer and use descriptive words more generally than English.

But aside from that, whenever  I write, I almost never look up words in the dictionary.

Don’t be misled by the title of the post – I love the dictionary.  And it’s pretty much impossible to learn a language without one.  When I’m reading, I’m always using my crappy Korean-English dictionary app on my iPod or the Daum 영어 or 국어 dictionaries.

But I avoid using the dictionary when I write.  I only want to use words that, I guess, come naturally to me as I write. Sometimes I do check the definition of a word to make sure I’m using it correctly but I never try to use a word that I’ve not learned.  I never “compose” a sentence in English in my head and then try to translate it into Korean; obviously, I did write like that at one point, but now I compose what I want to say in Korean itself and then write it down.  That means limiting myself to the vocabulary I truly know.  The only exception I sometimes make to this rule is looking up specific nouns (for example, I looked up the Korean word for resume, 이력서, when I was writing about graduate school interviews).

I keep harping on about nuances of words but honestly that’s what this comes down to as well.  I just don’t think it’s possible to accurately use a verb or adjective (especially adjectives), sometimes even nouns, that you’ve just looked up in a dictionary.  For example, if you look up the word “mistake” in an Eng-Kor dictionary, you’ll get words like 잘못, 틀림, 착각, 오해, 실수 – ALL of which have different connotations and are used in different scenarios.  If you tried to ask a Korean person to correct your “오해” or “착각” in something you’ve written… it’s just weird.

I know people are eager to spice up their writing using pretty new words (I’m guilty of that) but sometimes it’s painfully obvious people have looked up words in the dictionary without having any idea of whether native speakers use that word in that manner.  Just because some word “X” is used in some manner in English does NOT mean it’s used in the same way in another language.  And sometimes it’s just awkward… imagine writing a simple sentence with the grammatical complexity of an elementary school student, but throwing in a complicated, rarely-used word?  That’s why I think it’s important to limit the words you use in writing to words you feel you know really well – even if it means that you just use 좋다 or 대박 or something over and over again.  READING will help build a broader vocabulary better than writing and context will help with recognizing the nuances of certain words.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in using wrong words and making mistakes.  I know I do.  Some people may even prefer to learn by making mistakes and being corrected.  Personally, I prefer to not make mistakes when I write – that way, I can confirm what I really know well, both in grammar and vocabulary, and I can move on from there.